The importance of Midway

On August 28th, 1867, William Reynolds, Captain of the USS Lackawanna, formally took possession of the uninhabited island later called Midway Atoll, roughly equidistant from North America and Asia, hence the name. Midway was to be of historic importance in the defence of the US West coast.

It's part of a volcanic chain that includes the Hawaiian islands, formed about 28 million years ago. As it has subsided under the weight of new lava, a thick coral reef has formed, and Midway's two significant islands, Sand and Eastern, are home to millions of seabirds.

It was originally claimed 11 years earlier by a Capt. Brooks as a possible source of guano, but none was ever mined there. But it did have a major strategic importance. It was a refueling stop for early transpacific flights and for navy vessels. As tensions with Japan rose in the prelude to World War II, Midway was reinforced with an airstrip, anti-aircraft guns, radar, and a base for seaplanes and submarines.

Months after the unprovoked Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, US code-breakers detected Japanese traffic indicating a major attack and invasion of somewhere they called "AF." Acting on a hunch, Navy Commander Joseph Rochefort thought it might be Midway, and had the base there send a signal that it was having trouble with its water condenser. When the Japanese traffic reported that "AF" was having trouble with its water condenser, his hunch was confirmed, and the Americans sent a carrier task force to lie in wait.

The Battle of Midway, from June 4-7th 1942, turned the tide of the Pacific War. US carrier-borne planes sank 4 Japanese carriers and a heavy cruiser, and destroyed Japanese naval air power, both planes and pilots. The Japanese never again went on the offensive. Midway Atoll continued to be retained as an unorganized, unincorporated territory of the United States, and still is.

It is now a nature conservancy, with the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge administered by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Its lagoon and surrounding waters are home to over 250 species of marine life, and its beaches are breeding grounds for critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals who raise their pups on the beaches, feeding on Midway's reef fish, squid, octopus and crustaceans. Another threatened species, green sea turtles, sometimes nest there. There are spinner dolphins, and Laysan, short-tailed, and black-footed albatross.

Members of the public, mostly naval history buffs and nature lovers, could visit from 1996 to 2002, and again from 2008 to 2012, but budget cuts have meant visits have been suspended. The only way to go there now is with some kind of official status as a scientist, educator, or volunteer. Given Midway's historic World War II significance and its teeming wildlife, it would perhaps be a major tourist destination, but with that tourism would come pollution to threaten its delicate ecosystems.  

Capt. Reynolds can have had no idea when he claimed the island for the United States of the historic role they would play in tipping the balance of Pacific power and curbing Japan's career of imperial conquest. No-one had ever lived on the islands until he arrived, and the population today numbers only about 40 conservation staff and their supporting contractors. Midway today is a peaceful place, but a reminder that sometimes tyranny and fanaticism have to be resisted by bravery, skill and resolution.